- Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South by James C. Giesen
Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South by James C. Giesen is about a destructive little insect and its impact on one of the key agricultural regions of the United States: the American South. The boll weevil, a small beetle from Mexico, brought about much devastation throughout the U.S. agrarian South in the first half of the 1900s. And, though the actual impact of the boll weevil was real, the insect quickly emerged as the scapegoat for all problems faced by Southerners in the United States. Deteriorating quality of soil, a poor economic outlook, and failure of government leadership—all could be blamed in some form on the boll weevil. Yet, many hoped that the infestation might propel the farmers of a land often referenced by the name Cotton Kingdom to diversify and modernize. Such monumental change would come for the region, but not as a result of an agricultural pest.
Giesen readily asserts that the boll weevil is more than an agricultural pest. The boll weevil and its destructive tendencies are nothing short of an environmental disaster in the agricultural history of the United States. Yet, the author contends, studies and scholarship chronicling the sheer damaging nature of the insect fail to capture the full picture of the crushing blow that the boll weevil made to the culture and mentality of the American South. Giesen makes the striking assertion that the boll weevil is “a crucial component of the larger personal, cultural, and economic history that southerners tell of their region” (p. 175). In short, in order to understand the human experience in the American South, one must understand the powerful effect of an insect that thrives on a diet of cotton plants.
Giesen traces the movement of the fear of the boll weevil across the Rio Grande to East Texas, through the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, [End Page 724] to southeastern Alabama and into central Georgia from the 1890s through the late 1920s. The advance of the phenomenon mirrors the progression of the insect itself. As it infested more and more states in the American South, farmers called for action on the part of legislators at the local, state, and national level.
Scholars offered wisdom, including recommendations to starve the boll weevil by limiting or abandoning cotton production for a season or two. U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist Tyler Townsend pioneered a plan of attack on the boll weevil habitat. The plan, called the cultural method, proved popular with tenant farmers. The method included vigilant watchfulness for infestations, diligent weeding out of affected plants, and a simple albeit labor-intensive post-harvest process of burning and discarding old stalks, flooding irrigated fields, encouraging livestock to consume remains, and embracing crop rotation practices.
In Texas and Louisiana, African American tenant farmers employed the cultural method with notable successes. Giesen argues that tenant farmers in general were faced with only three possible solutions in regards to the threat of boll weevil infestation: “quit farming, move to another farm, or continue to live and farm alongside the insect” (p. 33). Townsend’s cultural method, therefore, presented a workable approach to living and farming alongside the insect.
Regardless of the wisdom and practical experience shared by some who had success fighting boll weevil infestations, farmers resisted practical methods. Agricultural extension offices opened up throughout the American South with the purpose of educating farmers on methods of boll weevil resistance. Institutions of higher education boomed through the region as land grant colleges emerged in southern cities with various academic departments working on research methods to fight boll weevils. And groups of scholars visited communities to encourage diversification and modernization as ways to grapple not only with boll weevil problems, but also with concerns about deteriorating soil quality throughout the Cotton Kingdom. The real change that the Southern states needed could have come about as a result...